Riley Greene leads Detroit Tigers in hits, strikeouts. Here’s what to make of his 2023

Detroit Free Press

Riley Greene leads the Detroit Tigers with 21 strikeouts.

The thing is, Greene has the potential to be the Tigers’ best player. The 22-year-old seems to always finds a way, despite his swing-and-miss tendencies and lack of extra-base hits, to contribute by getting on base. He leads the Tigers with 13 hits, one more than Spencer Torkelson, and has reached safely at least once in all but four of his 14 games this season.

But Greene continues to hit the ball on the ground.

“I feel like I’m not swinging it like Riley Greene can swing it, obviously, but I’m in a good spot mentally, which is 90% of everything,” said Greene, who entered Sunday with five hits and 13 strikeouts in his previous eight games. “I just got to work through some things and get the ball in the air. I’m hitting the ball on the ground more.”

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Greene, the 2019 No. 5 overall pick, is hitting .232 with one home run and five walks this season. He leads the American League with two triples, but aside from a clutch go-ahead 414-foot home run in the seventh inning April 3 against the Houston Astros, he doesn’t have any other extra-base hits.

The sample size is small, so take everything with a grain of salt.

Greene, who seems to have swing flaws on the inner third of the plate, is creating damage when he makes contact on down-and-away pitches, middle-and-up pitches and up-and-in pitches. But that’s not the case on up-and-away and down-and-in pitches. Opposing pitchers have taken notice.

“This league has a funny way of adjusting to you pretty quickly and pounding you with pitches in areas that are uncomfortable for you,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “The more he recognizes that and experiences that, the faster he will be able to make the adjustment. Kind of a youthful approach to learning. They’re not just going to lay the ball over the outside part of the plate.”

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The ground-ball rate, though, isn’t a small sample size and could be a product of his bat path against high-end velocity. The long swing also might be the reason he can’t turn on inside pitches and pull the ball into right field.

Greene posted a 56.8% ground-ball rate in 93 games last season and a 51.3% ground-ball rate in 19 games during spring training. In 2023, he has a 54.3% ground-ball rate.

“In spring training, I was getting the ball in the air and things were happening,” Greene said. “Ball on the ground, not so much is going to happen. I’m trying to work on that and grind in the box. When you’re not feeling good, all you can do is go to the plate and go to war.”

Hinch thinks the situation boils down to pitch selection.

“Pitch selection is always key,” Hinch said. “He and I have this thing where all I really want to talk about is whether he got a good pitch to hit or not, and when he does, he does a lot of damage, but when he doesn’t, it can be a little bit of a messy at-bat. I know he wants to be more productive in the at-bats that he’s struggled in, but pitch selection is going to be key.”

Greene referenced pitch selection when discussing the down-and-in pitches he struggles to pull into right field. He almost always fouls those pitches off his right foot or right calf — or hits ground balls — because of his bat path, but more often than not, he shouldn’t be swinging at those pitches.

That’s an issue with his approach.

“They’re throwing offspeed in,” Greene said. “I probably should be taking it. There are some balls I’ve been swinging at that are in and off the plate. It looks like a good pitch, and at the end, it just breaks. … You see that ball is right there in your spot, and it just happens to cut a little bit.”

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Last season, Greene hit .253 with five home runs, 36 walks and 120 strikeouts in 93 games. Two seasons ago, he hit .301 with 24 home runs, 63 walks and 153 strikeouts in 124 minor-league games.

The strikeouts appear to be here to stay. But Greene needs to elevate the ball like he did in 2021 with Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. Only then will he start hitting more doubles and home runs.

Adjustments will be necessary, but in the meantime, Hinch won’t move Greene — who has started eight games as the No. 2 hitter and six games as the No. 3 hitter — from the top of the batting order.

“I don’t think they suck when they do poorly, and I don’t think they’re Hall of Famers when they do great,” Hinch said. “I think Riley is a really good player, and he’s a really good player when he’s 0-for-20, and he’s a good player when he’s 10-for-20. I try to be consistent with them so that they understand things I do with the lineup, or things I do with their playing time, doesn’t revolve solely on today’s game.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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